Ray Monk's 2014 Seymour Lecture

Ray Monk's 2014 Seymour Lecture
Wittgenstein's biographer visits the National Library of Australia
6 February 2015

How can I be a logician before I'm a human being? The role of biography in the understanding of intellectuals

Ben Richards Portrait of Ludwig Wittgenstein

Ben Richards Portrait of Ludwig Wittgenstein, 1947, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Ludwig_Wittgenstein_by_Ben_Richards.jpg

'Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent'—Wittgenstein

Rarely do I attend a lecture, let alone on a Friday evening, where the audience hangs on the speaker's every word and clearly doesn't want the inspiring performance to end. Ray Monk's outstanding and remarkably assured 2014 Seymour Biography Lecture, in which he analysed his inspiration to create rich biographical works articulating complex lives, was just such a lecture. As a philosopher of mathematics and as the biographer of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Bertrand Russell and, most recently, nuclear physicist Robert Oppenheimer, his incisive observations brought the business of creating a life on paper squarely into view.

I found Monk's statements on how he thought his way through the process of biographical invention inspiring.  Over the past months I have been contemplating how to imaginatively create an engaging biographical work around the life of the enigmatic collector Sir Rex Nan Kivell, whose dense and now priceless collection formed a cornerstone of the National Library of Australia's rich holdings on its momentous acquisition in 1959. While Nan Kivell was no Wittgenstein or Russell, he was a complex, purposeful, and remarkable enough figure within his milieu. His entrepreneurial spirit and social and business sense successfully engineered the pre-eminence of London's Redfern Gallery over four decades. Selling modern art to the famous and wealthy gave Nan Kivell the resources to create his encyclopaedic 'Australasian' collection, as he referred to it.   

Today Nan Kivell is a largely ignored or at least unrecognised figure. His commendable generosity to the Library and to the nation certainly needs to be better celebrated. A biography may come some way to doing this and may perhaps encourage others to commit to support the development of our collection and projects.

But to return to Ray Monk, whose central argument regarding the nature of biography was that the reader will appreciate the multifaceted nature of the subject if they feel they know them through the process of discovering them in the written account. One cannot truly understand someone else if one does not appreciate how they felt about the world surrounding them and have some understanding of their inner life as well. Biography is much more than just a sequential listing of the facts of someone’s life. 

As a graduate researcher at Oxford, Monk found that the systematic misunderstanding by writers on Wittgenstein's work, in particular his philosophy of mathematics, shared common misconceptions of the kind of person the philosopher was and the spirit in which he wrote. In seriously misunderstanding the philosopher, they misunderstood his philosophy. As Monk said, he subtly sought to establish in his biography 'what kind of person Wittgenstein was so as to enable people to ... understand the tone of voice and the spirit in which he wrote.'    

Searching for models of biographical invention in order to grapple with that most perplexing of philosophers, Monk's search led him back to the ancient world. He considered Plutarch's Lives of the Roman Emperors as an early form of biography carefully written in the service of history. In Monk's opinion, however, Diogenes Laertius in the third century CE was the first true biographer of thinkers when he wrote on the Lives and Opinions of Eminent philosophers. This is a parallel to Monk's own investigations in some respects. However, Diogenes wrote of the circumstances of the thinker's lives and briefly about their thoughts but didn't attempt to integrate the two. For example, Diogenes apparently described the Greek philosopher Zeno as prone to 'lying in the sun and eating figs', a nice fact Monk observed, but one which was not examined in relation to his philosophy (but may say something about his work ethic!)

The surprising absence of biographical writing for centuries from the ancient world to the modern era was also made apparent by Monk. The centrality of James Boswell's biographical invention of Samuel Johnson was subtly explored by Monk as a key work for him in seeking to understand the process of transformation that takes place when an author writes a life.

Monk invoked Virginia Woolf in capturing the essence of Boswell's success in rendering Johnson for his audience:

So we hear booming out from Boswell's page the voice of Samuel Johnson. 'No, sir; stark insensibility', we hear him say. Once we have heard those words we are aware that there is an incalculable presence among us which will go on ringing and reverberating in widening circles... We can no longer maintain that life consists in actions only or in works. It consists in personality. 

A new form of biography is created by Boswell in this way, crafted through the intimacy, proximity and understanding of one person listening to and observing, then recreating the other on the page.

Monk considered how Samuel Johnson thought about biography and wrote about it and asked five central questions. 

How did biography relate to other genres, for example, history and fiction?

Johnson believed that biography held a unique place between history and fiction: the former focuses on facts and the truth and the latter on a compelling narrative based on an individual. Monk went on to consider the possible evolution of biography and fiction in the eighteenth century in the lively London coffee house and through people talking about one another and literature, speculating on biography as 'the higher form of gossip'.

Who deserves a biography?

Significantly, Johnson believed that biographies should be written on those who had great ideas and minds not just on those who executed great and valorised deeds – a narrative driven by personality. 

What details should be included in a biography?

The details which give the reader some idea of the personality of the person being portrayed and not just the facts—how they walked, for example. It will vary from person to person, but the personality of the subject must emerge from such details.  

The moral responsibilities of the biographer to the subject, the public and to the truth?  

Johnson believed that the writer's ultimate moral responsibility to the truth was paramount. In this regard Monk thoughtfully discussed his biography of Bertrand Russell, which necessitated him reading 40,000 of the philosopher's letters, and movingly described how beginning to know those associated closely with the philosopher was, as he said, 'to pick one’s way through a history of emotional wreckage.' The philosopher's callous behaviour in withdrawing from those closest to him had calamitous outcomes for his family. Despite the fact that these stories were damaging to the reputation of the Russell, in the service of the truth, they had to emerge in the biography.

Can one know the inner life of another person?

Johnson believed that it was 'by conjecture only can one man judge of another’s motives or sentiments'. In this respect, autobiography was at an advantage, though of course objectivity can become an issue here. Monk emphatically disagreed with Johnson on this point. We do not have to have 'privileged access' to somebody's thinking to describe what they are feeling, for example, you can describe simply how they look: ecstatic, sad, triumphant.

In seeking models of biography to write Wittgenstein's life Monk read and absorbed Richard Ellmann's inspirational Pulitzer Prize-winning biography on Oscar Wilde, and another on James Joyce. The lesson he learnt was to quote the subject clearly and move on. Don't over interpret the text and the narrative

Monk went on to explore another biographical model as demonstrated by Andrew Hodges in his evocation of the life of the brilliant mathematician Alan Turing which was, he said, hugely influential on him. While seeming an improbable, impenetrable and enigmatic figure for a biography, Hodges shared some of the key characteristics of the subject being both a mathematician and gay. Hodges could credibly explain Turing's complex mathematical work while at the same time describing his intense emotional life and suffering, including his conviction, punitive hormone therapy and the possible symbolism of his suicide. Monk was inspired by the way in which Hodges cleverly wove the various complex sides of Turing's life into a seamless single narrative without it being reductive or attempting to compartmentalise aspects of his life.

Monk also found Lytton Strachey, the inaugurator of the new biography movement, helpful. The qualities of the good biographer or historian were, according to Strachey, 'a capacity for absorbing facts, a capacity for stating them and a point of view', the latter being of particular importance in Monk’s creation of Wittgenstein. The point of view is vital in enabling the reader to make sense of the subject. Through this, they can then see the subject more clearly.

Kaninchen und Ente

'Kaninchen und Ente' ('Rabbit and Duck'), the earliest known version of the duck-rabbit illusion, from Fliegende Blätter, 23 October 1892, from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kaninchen_und_Ente.png

Wittgenstein's duck-rabbit problem and the importance to him of 'seeing connections' rounded out what was a memorable evening.  Looking at this image, what changes when you see the figure first as a duck, then a rabbit? The drawing doesn't change. It is simply the way you look at it: you are looking at it differently. Wittgenstein used it to make the distinction between seeing that/seeing as. As Monk said, the philosopher is trying to get you to see things differently through seeing connections in a fundamental sense and this applies to the biographer as well. They must provide the reader with the facts and observations to enable them to see the connections and should not have to wade through theory about the subject.

Wittgenstein composite portrait

Galtonian composite portrait created by overlaying four photographs of Wittgenstein and his three sisters, from http://hilobrow.com/2011/07/21/wittgensteins-mashups/

Wittgenstein and his sisters

The portraits of Wittgenstein and his sisters used to create the Galtonian composite portrait shown above, from http://hilobrow.com/2011/07/21/wittgensteins-mashups/

Monk's use of the image of the Galtonian photograph of Wittgenstein's siblings, as seen above, was also fascinating. The photographic form was named after the polymath Francis Galton. The philosopher commissioned overlaying portraits of his siblings to see the connections between them and himself, and to see the series of similarities and dissimilarities that existed. Monk reasserted that the art of the biography is not to theorise but to create a situation where the reader can 'see' the connections and begin to 'know' the person. 

Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, Monk finished by explaining that Wittgenstein was influenced by a truly eccentric book Sex and Character by the Austrian misogynist and anti-Semite Otto Weininger. The writer's theories were quite aberrant, but in his volume, Weininger stated that 'logic and ethics are fundamentally the same, they are no more than duty to oneself.' In this statement Monk found the point of view, to quote Strachey, which he needed to recreate Wittgenstein’s life: The Duty of Genius. He stated that this duty is to oneself and that it has two aspects, logic and ethics, which are fundamentally the same. Dominated by the desires 'to be a decent person and to think honestly and deeply', Wittgenstein attempted to express this in his work and Monk elegantly conveyed this in his very entertaining and thoughtful lecture.

Great thanks are due to John and Heather Seymour for their foresight in supporting this enlightening series of lectures, and in bringing such a thinker and biographer to us.  

On taking Ray Monk around the Library's Treasures Gallery and explaining the richness of the Nan Kivell collection and also my ambition to craft a biography on the collector, he became quite animated, took some photos and asked, 'Can I see his statue?' I explained that there wasn't one but that we did have a portrait in the reading room upstairs. We attempted to visit it but the room had closed. He said 'Nan Kivell really deserves a movie as well!' Perhaps the highest form of praise from such a great biographer.


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